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The Dalits of India: education and

development
ERI K FRASER, JUN 23 2010
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Ensuring access to education for the Dalits of India has been the greatest challenge for the Indian
government in diminishing the social effects of the caste system, which still remain entrenched in
Indian society. There have been many different reasons proposed as to why the Dalits suffer from
low rates of literacy and primary education enrolment, but the most realistic one describes history
and unequal access as the causes. The ancient caste system of India, which has resulted in the
social and economic oppression of the Dalits, continues to play a dominant role in India. The Dalits,
also known as the scheduled caste or untouchables, have experienced consistent denial to access
to education since the 1850s. This decade coincided with Britains established control over India,
which meant many of the improvements to Dalit education were coming from outside influences,
rather than from the national government. Because of unchanging social norms and behaviour,
incentives to pursue education were minimal for the Dalits who were still physically and emotionally
harassed. Increasing efforts to eliminate caste discrimination combined with additional attempts to
increase the accessibility and appeal for education have contributed to the slow progression of Dalit
education. The responsibility for social equalization fell fully upon the Indian government when it
gained its independence from Britain in 1948. While some benefits of social programs and
government policies designed to increase primary education rates can be noticed, the Dalit literate
population still remains much lower than that of the rest of India. There remains still, hostility,
oppression and flaws in social programs in Indian society that prevent an increase in education
growth. Despite efforts to decrease caste discrimination and increase national social programs, the
Dalits of India continue to experience low enrolment rates and a lack of access to primary education
in comparison to the rest of India.
Historical Context
Deeply entrenched in Indian society is the complex social stratification of individuals known as the
caste system. It is a division of society traditionally based on occupation and family lineage. In India,
the caste system is divided into five separate classes. The highest class in Indian society is that of
the priests and teachers, or Brahmins, followed by the warrior class, the Kshatriyas . Third ranked
are those who fall in the farmer and merchant class, the Vaishyas, followed by the fourth ranked
labourer class, the Shudras (The Caste System in Hinduism). The fifth group, which was seen as
being so low as to not deserve being placed in a caste, were the Dalits. Often referred to in Indian
culture as the untouchables, these were the people who have the harshest and most unjust
restrictions imposed upon them (Desai & Kulkarni).
The organization of the caste system and its entrenchment within Indian history has resulted in
centuries of hostile interaction between classes. In rural areas, Dalits were excluded from temples,
village wells and tea shops. In some areas of the country, the Dalits were not permitted to walk in
daylight for their shadows were considered pollution (Nambissan 1011). In addition to the cruel and
humiliating circumstances the Dalits have been put in, their efforts to improve their situation have
often been squashed by assault, rape and murder by upper castes threatened by the Dalits search
for equality (Bob 173). The cruel and unjust treatment imposed upon the Dalits has decreased in
frequency as history has progressed, although it still continues in todays society.
After the introduction of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act of
1989, the practice of the caste system became illegal in India. Despite increased government
intervention, the discrimination and mistreatments of individuals of lower castes still occur. Today,
the Dalit population represents 16% of the countrys population and still struggles to achieve social
equality. There remains geographic division within Indian cities and villages which exemplify the role
that the caste system plays in todays society (Desai et al). Many Dalits have attempted to avoid the
caste system by converting from Hinduism to other religions, although this rarely allows these
individuals to escape their social and economic hardships.
The Dalits have experienced a bit of progress in establishing an equal position in Indian society.
Under the Poona Pact, a reserved number of seats in the national legislature were reserved for Dalit
candidates only who would be elected based solely on the votes of their Dalit constituents (Bob).
Their movement has also been encouraged by slow societal shifts towards a greater acceptance of
Dalit equality and a greater role played by local and international nongovernmental organizations
(Bob 173). The Dalit population continues to struggle for equality, though the progress of the past
few decades shows hope for an improved level of equality within Indian society.
The Importance of Education
Before beginning to examine methods of improving enrolment in primary education and literacy
rates, it is important to know why education is such an important topic in development studies. The
past century has been characterized by a global expansion of education. Alongside this growth in
education has also been an increase in the gap between different social strata (Desai & Kulkarni).
Education can be a way to increase the incomes of impoverished people. Education helps to ensure
that benefits of growth are experienced by all. Economic perspectives see education as a means to
make individuals more productive in the workplace and at home. It can also be seen as a means of
empowering socially and economically deprived groups into seeking political reform. By using any of
these reasons as motivation to pursue educational development, governments are attempting to
generate some form of social or economic equality for the population.
Some of those who study development see education as a means of improving social welfare
through economic means. When compared to secondary and university level education, rates of
return are highest for primary education, which means that the costs associated with providing basic
education are much lower than the benefits received from learning to read and write. About 17.2% of
economic growth in Africa and 11.1% in Asia between the 1950s & 1960s have been credited to
increases in education (Psacharopoulos 102). In addition to an increase in economic growth, primary
education is also said to lead to greater income distribution. Providing primary education to 10%
more people would equate to a decrease in the inequality index of 5% (Psacharopoulos 103). The
economic advantages of increasing enrolment rates for primary education emphasize the
importance of increasing education accessibility for the dalits of India.
An alternative reason to study education is for its ability to empower the individual to strive for an
improved quality of life. A big factor impacted by education is that human beings often base their life
goals and everyday actions on what they perceive to be feasible (Simon Wigley & Akkoyunlu-Wigley
290). Education expands the knowledge of possibility to poor individuals, and is often a necessary
factor in providing incentive to escape poverty and social oppression.
Development projects focused on increasing access to basic education, rather than ones that
increase capital to improve current levels of education, ensure governments are able to know that
the benefits of these programs are experienced by all, rather than a select few. As mentioned
previously, the rates of return for primary education exceed those of secondary and university
levelled education. It is therefore of greater value for governments to focus first on increasing access
to primary education before moving onto to increase levels of education. By focusing development
on a human-capabilities approach, governments and aid organizations are able to increase the
number of people with the fundamental skills of reading writing and arithmetic (Simon Wigley &
Akkoyunlu-Wigley 288). These skills allow individuals to communicate, argue, count, and problem
solve so that they are able to become more aware and in control of their own lives. This allows them
to better deal with problems in their everyday lives including taking a loan out from the bank,
defending them in a court of law, escaping unhealthy personal relationships or avoiding jobs which
would expose them to unsafe working conditions (Simon Wigley & Akkoyunlu-Wigley 293). Even the
value of holding a basic education is in itself a frequently overlooked asset. Education has had an
independent effect on life expectancy, increasing the age for educated individuals (Simon Wigley &
Akkoyunlu-Wigley 290).
One of the most important Dalit political activists who saw the value of social equity within India was
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who became the chief architect of Indias constitution after years of social
activism. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Ambedkar dedicated a significant portion
of his life to improving the quality of life and social status of Dalit Indians. He established the
Peoples Education Society in 1945 which believed that increasing access to education to the Dalits
would increase their empowerment. He thought that a higher level of education would cause the
Dalits to realize their position so that they would aspire to the highest of Hindu positions, and that
they would consequently use political power and influence as the means to an end to their
oppression (Nambissan 1014). Ambedkar believed that the value of education was in the
empowerment of Dalits to pursue political action for social reform through informed lobbying.
A History of Education
The 1991 census of India reported that Dalit communities were one of the least literate social groups
in the country, with only 30% of Dalit children recognized to have basic reading and writing skills
(Nambissan 1011). These high levels of illiteracy are a result of insufficient access to primary
education. Reasons proposed for this low primary education rate amongst the Dalits have ranged
from blaming family values to universal acceptance of social behaviour. In reality, it is a history of
constant oppression and missing incentives that have been the reason why Indias lowest caste has
struggled to take advantage of public education programs.
For centuries, the Dalit population of India were forbidden from gaining access to education.
Originally reserved for upper castes only, the denial of conventional education to Dalits was
designed to prevent them from increasing their quality of life and to highlight caste divisions. Caught
in a colonial struggle between European nations, Indian society had no motivation to determine who
should manage social programs until the British established control over India. Then, during the
1850s, the British began the long process of increasing the accessibility of education to all citizens
on India.
Signed in April of 1850, the Caste Disabilities Removal Act theoretically abolished all Indian laws
which challenge the rights of those who are members of any caste or religion. To most, this was the
first step towards social equalization within India. It was also the beginning of a series of attempts to
increase accessibility to education for members of the dalit caste. To coincide with the signing of the
act, the Indian education system became accessible to every member of society. However, one
hundred and sixty years after the Dalits were granted permission to attend schools, the primary
education rates of the Dalit population compared to those of upper castes remain as low ever.
There have been a number of suggestions proposed as to why the Dalits have yet to take advantage
of open access to education. Some have suggested that Dalits possess an apathetic attitude
towards education, and so the thought of attending school seems unappealing and inefficient
compared to entering the workforce or doing nothing at all. Another suggestion of the cause for
lower access to education to Dalits is that most families are caught in a vicious cycle of illiteracy and
poverty. Therefore, not only do parents have no incentive to have their children attend school, but
they also frequently lack the financial means to send them to the fee-based schooling system of
India (Nambissan 1011). The final and often most realistic reasons for why the Dalits have failed to
take advantage of their access to education is a combination of a history of oppression and a lack of
access to local, quality education systems.
A historical back-drop of mistreatment and class hierarchies has provided little incentive for the
Dalits to pursue education. Throughout the 1800s and into the mid 1940s, conditions for Dalit
children within the Indian education system were very poor. Due to discrimination from higher
castes, the Dalits did not feel comfortable attending schools. Dalit children were required to sit
outside the school, listening on the veranda while those in higher castes would be taught inside.
Teachers, who refused to touch the Dalit children even with sticks, would throw bamboo canes as
undeserved punishment while children of other castes were permitted to throw mud. The Dalit
children, who knew retaliation would result only in increased abuse, would be essentially scared into
not attending school (Freeman 67). Of the limited number of Dalit children who were attending
school, the majority were male; a trait which continues even today (Nambissan 1012).
The 1948 independence of India prompted an increase in responsibility for the government to
promote the economic and educational interests of the lower castes and to protect the Dalits from
social injustices and exploitations. Over the next few decades, the Dalits would see very little action
to support the claims and progress made during the fifties to help improve their access to primary
education. The 1950s saw subtle improvements in the number of schools being built in India, as well
as the amount of money being allocated towards primary education programs. The efforts being put
forward by the government lost momentum over the next few decades however, as the rate of
primary schools being constructed slipped from 5.8% in the 1960s, to 2.1% during the 1970s, and
eventually down to only 1.3% through the 1980s (Nambissan 1015). This was complemented by a
shift in funding from primary school education to middle school education. This transition exemplified
the governments shifted focus from increasing primary enrolment rates to increasing the quality of
the education provided to those already provided with sufficient access to education.
Between 1983 and 2000, improvements in access to education for all of India have been made,
although the difference between education rates for Dalits, especially females, and those in higher
castes remained constant. In the seventeen year period, enrolment rates for Dalit boys grew from
only 47.7% to a meagre 63.25%. When compared to those males in upper castes, enrolments
jumped from an already relatively impressive 73.22% to 82.92%. Even poorer results were observed
when looking at the female Dalit enrolment rate, which inched from 15.72% to 32.61%, when
compared to their upper-caste counterparts whose enrolment climbed from 43.56% to 59.15%
(Desai & Kulkarni). The education gap can also be understood to translate through the entire
schooling system, with the proportion of Dalit to non-Dalit success remaining at a constant low rate
through primary, secondary, and post-secondary schooling. Although large improvements have been
made to increase enrolment rates in India, statistics show that there has been little progress in
decreasing the education gap between castes.
The lack of success in increasing primary enrolment rates for Dalits over the past one hundred and
fifty years is evidence that very few projects have had any success in increasing social equality
within the Indian Caste system. In the next section, the paper will look at some of the programs
which have attempted to provide incentive for Indias poorest to seek primary education.
Education-Based Development Programs: Can they Work?
When discussing methods which seek to improve enrolment rates, it is important to analyze which
circumstances prevent Dalit children from attending school. A familys financial situation plays a role
in whether or not they are able to afford to send a child to school. This is a major contributor to low
Dalit enrolment rates since Dalits have considerably lower incomes than those in upper castes, and
therefore have a hard time paying for education. Distance also plays a key role in determining a
childs ability to attend school. Because Dalit homes are often located outside of a village, it is more
dangerous for Dalit children to travel to and from school by themselves without risking assault,
sexual abuse or abduction (Desai & Kulkarni). In addition, teachers at the schools are often
members of upper castes who set low expectations for the Dalit children and rarely seek to provide
them with a positive learning environment. There are many factors that act as obstacles for Dalits
attempting to gain a primary education, and which many development methods have attempted to
overcome.
India has attempted many different strategies to help increase the incentive to receive education for
Dalit children. Earlier strategies focused on finding ways to give Dalit children an education without
exposing them to the harshness of upper castes. As time progressed and the caste system began to
weaken in India, there was a greater shift towards equalizing society so as to provide safer and more
positive learning environments. Since gaining its independence, the Indian government has
continued to make progress on improving the quality of life for Indias lowest caste. Modern
exposure to international thought has increased access to ideas and methods on how to increase
education rates for the Dalits, providing for some of the best results in recent years (Nambissan
1011). The remainder of this section will examine some of the strategies used over the past one
hundred and fifty years, attempting to look at how effective they really were.
Following the creation of the Caste Disabilities Removal Act, the British government attempted to
increase Dalit school attendance through methods which took into consideration the sensitivity of the
caste society. Because the Dalit children were often harassed when they attended schools, the
British chose to propose alternative teaching methods, rather than directly addressing the caste
issue. One proposed alternative was the use of night schooling for Dalit children. In this manner,
children would not need to worry about attending school with members of upper castes, but would
still face dangers of travelling without daylight to and from school. Another proposed solution was the
use of all-Dalit schools. This solution eliminated the dangers associated with night-time schooling,
but also did not help to decrease hostility between the classes. These two methods combined
resulted in a 4% primary enrolment rate for Dalit children by 1931, 81 years after education was first
opened to all citizens on India. Of these Dalit children, 93% were attending all-Dalit schools. A
problem occurred when there were insufficient all-Dalit schools at which children could pursue
secondary education. Only 1% of all students at the time ever made it past primary education
(Nambissan 1012). It was because of this, that when the British handed over control of the country to
India in 1948, the Indian government began thinking of new ways to increase access to education.
Often, governments try to bring in international assistance in dealing with a national crisis like
severely low primary enrolment rates. Prescribed to the Indian government by the World Bank, the
District Primary Education Program was designed to increase primary enrolment rates within India.
The goal of the program is to reduce differences in enrolment between gender and social standing to
5%, and to decrease the dropout rate to 10%. The DPEP receives the majority of its funding from the
World Bank. It calls for the formation of local committees that oversee the hiring and management of
Para-teachers. These Para-teachers are trained teachers hired by the DPEP program to fill growing
vacancies in primary schools. They are hired on a short term basis but are offered extended terms
as an incentive to perform well (Kumar, Priyam, & Saxena 565). They are a low-cost alternative to
permanent teaching staff and their performance is often higher due to increased incentives. Since
the introduction of the DPEP, India has actually managed to see decreasing primary enrolment rates
(Kumar, Priyam, & Saxena 567). It is possible that national campaigns to increase enrolment in
primary education fail to have a direct intended impact. Instead, the management of such programs
are so focused on a top down approach to education development that they are not able to discover
and acknowledge specific issues.
A smaller scale, and more capital based approach to development and increasing primary enrolment
rates is the allocation of additional textbooks to a community. In developing countries, textbooks are
often the only basis for a curriculum in a subject. If a school is not able to purchase its own
textbooks, then knowledge resources will be limited. By increasing the amount of textbooks,
development projects are attempting to increase the ability of schools to take in more students and
they hope that additional resources so that performance in school will increase (Crossley & Murby
111). The biggest concern which arises out of providing textbooks is that it will not increase
enrolment rates. New textbooks provide little incentive for Dalit children to attend classes as they do
not alleviate any of the barriers currently blocking them from access education. Increasing access to
text books has assisted in increasing the quality of education despite having little or no impact on
enrolment rates.
Lastly, this paper will look to an outside approach to increasing school enrolment and attendance by
observing how school-based drug treatments to common diseases attempt to provide incentive for
enrolment. Many preventable diseases, including hookworm, roundworm and whipworm affect
millions of children worldwide every year, preventing them for attending any sort of school or doing
any physical labour (Miguel & Kremer 159). In this sense, the free drugs associated with this
program not only provide incentive for children to come to school and learn, but they also serve a
second purpose in that they keep students healthy, ensuring they are physically capable of returning
to school. Children who attended schools which offered this program not only remained healthy, but
felt more comfortable attending school on a regular basis. It has been proven that programs which
offer medical incentives decreases absence rates by 25%. This method has also proven to equally
increase the amount of girls and boys who are being enticed to attend regular primary schooling
(Miguel & Kremer 190-191). In a case examined by Miguel and Kremer, female attendance
increased by 10% in subject areas, nearly two times that of males (Desai & Kulkarni). The
medication has also proved more cost effective for the organizations administering the medication.
This method been proven as a more effective way of increasing education levels compared to food
incentives. On average the annual $5 cost of administering deworming medication to a child is six
times cheaper than providing the same child with food incentives. School uniforms, which are often
so expensive as to prevent young girls from attending school, have had relatively equivalent success
in increasing enrolments rates in young females. Deworming, however, remains more effective
because costs associated with deworming medication are twenty times less expensive than
providing school uniforms (Bossuroy & Delavallade). Using medication and deworming medicines as
incentives, international organizations including the World Health Organization and The Forum of
Young Leaders campaign, Deworm the World, have developed a successful outside-the-box
approach to increasing enrolment and attendance rates.
Conclusion
There have been many attempts over the past one hundred and fifty years to help increase the
quality of life for the Dalits of India through development focused on enrolment in primary education.
Education provides individuals with the means to increase their income and to engage in economic
activities. In addition, it can help empower individuals to lobby for social change through political
activism. The lack of incentives to pursue education for the Dalits of India can be traced back to a
long history of mistreatment and oppression. Still occurring today, caste harassment makes teaching
environments unstable for caste children, it places caste homes on the outskirts of towns so that
children have greater distances to walk to school, and it economically suppresses the Dalits so that
they are unable to pay for their childrens education. Many suggestions, both traditional and modern,
have arisen on how to go about resolving issues surrounding Dalit primary enrolment. Night classes
and all-Dalit schools provided a safer learning environment for the Dalits, but did not address any
issues of caste conflict. Twentieth century policies helped officially decrease some of the animosity
and inequality between groups so that the Indian government could have a greater focus on national
primary enrolment rates. Larger operations, including the DPEP cooperative project with The World
Bank failed to resolve some of the grass-root issues which deterred Dalits from attending school.
Funding increasing supplies of textbooks to Indian schools do not address any of the core reasons
as to why dalits are not attending school. Instead of increasing enrolment, additional textbooks only
had an effect on increased performance levels. Providing free deworming medication at school has
proven successful both in increasing the health of children which prevents absenteeism, and in
increasing enrolment levels. Minor increases in incentives for Dalits to pursue primary education
have been beneficial, but not sufficient in equalizing the enrolment gap between the Dalits and
members of upper castes. In order for significant progress to be made in increasing the primary
enrolment rates of Dalit children, development organizations must continue to explore varying levels
of incentives and pursue national social equality in India.
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